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Claus von Bulow: Socialite convicted and later acquitted of trying to murder his millionaire wife

After Claus von Bulow’s recent death aged 92, Barry Egan tells the tale of the Dane who was once described as looking ‘positively Satanic’ and whose trials were the subject of a Hollywood movie

Claus von Bulow is led into Newport Superior Court in March1982, charged with murdering his wife Sunny
Claus von Bulow is led into Newport Superior Court in March1982, charged with murdering his wife Sunny
Claus von Bulow's wife Sunny
Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close as Claus and Sunny

By Barry Egan

It was the nightmare before Christmas. A tragic tale of a high society sleeping beauty who never wakes up.

On December 21, 1980, Martha 'Sunny' von Bulow slipped mysteriously into a coma. She was found unconscious on the bathroom floor of her 18th century mansion, Clarendon Court, in Rhode Island, the backdrop for the 1956 film High Society starring Grace Kelly. This wasn't the first time Sunny had been found unconscious.

The previous Christmas, on December 27, 1979, she had lapsed just as mysteriously into a coma. On that occasion she recovered six hours later. Foul play was now suspected on both counts.

Claus von Bulow, then 54, Sunny's shadowy faux-aristo husband, was sensationally accused by his stepchildren - Alexander von Auersperg and his sister Annie-Laurie von Auersperg Kneissl from her first marriage to Prince Alfred von Auersperg - of attempted murder by injecting her with sufficient amounts of insulin to aggravate her hypoglycemia, a low-blood sugar condition, to induce an irreversible coma. (Their half-sister, Cosima von Bulow, supported her father, and was subsequently disinherited for a time until Claus relinquished all claims on his wife's estate).

Claus' cunning plan, claimed his step-children, was to gain control of his wife's estate so that he could marry his mistress, who was waiting in the wings. At the subsequent high-profile trial, which was the talk of New York and the world, Claus was convicted in 1982 of attempting to murder his wife and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He hired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz (who, in 1995, would defend a certain OJ Simpson at his trial). Alan somehow got the guilty verdict overturned on an appeal. In an affidavit to support Claus, the author Truman Capote said that Sunny drank heavily, used drugs and "was an expert at injections".

Then in the second trial in 1985, Claus - represented by Thomas Puccio, a former New York district attorney - was controversially acquitted. The case spawned a 1990 movie Reversal of Fortune, with Claus played by Jeremy Irons (who won the Academy Award for best actor) and Glenn Close as Sunny.

In a 1990 interview, Jeremy Irons said: "I don't believe he did it, from reading the court case transcripts and from the character study I have been able to do of him. I don't believe he injected his wife with insulin in order to kill her. I don't think he was capable of it."

Be that as it may, Sunny tragically remained in a coma until her death in a clinic on December 6, 2008. Prior to that sad day she lay, as Dominick Dunne wrote in Vanity Fair magazine, "for years in a police-guarded room at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Her Porthault sheets were on her hospital bed. Several paintings from her New York apartment hung on her hospital room's walls. Manicurists and hairdressers tended to her nails and blonde hair".

She was 76 when she died. And Claus died last week in London, aged 92.

In his 1986 book Reversal of Fortune, Dershowitz wrote: "This case has everything. It has money, sex, drugs; it has Newport, New York and Europe; it has nobility; it has maids, butlers, a gardener."

Claus and Sunny were the elite pillars of American grand society. She was the Philadelphia Main Line heiress to a utilities fortune whose beauty as a young woman was once described as such that it "rivals her wealth".

Nicknamed Choo-Choo because she was born on September 1, 1932, in her father's railway car "en route from Hot Springs, Virginia, to New York", she was later nicknamed Sunny because of her disposition, which she soon lost after marriage to a man who seemed to be a product of some invention if not deception.

"The problem with Claus," one of his friends said, "is that he does not dwell in the Palace of Truth. You see, he's a fake. He's always been a fake. His name is a fake. His life is a fake. He has created a character that he plays. Claus is trompe l'oeil."

He was born Claus Cecil Borberg on August 11, 1926, in Copenhagen. He took his mother's maiden name and then added aristocratic 'von' to further distance himself from his equally notorious father, who had been in disgrace in Denmark for cosying up to the Nazis during their occupation of Denmark during the Second World War and was subsequently imprisoned after the war as a Nazi collaborator.

"He had dinner with the wrong people," Claus joked. Fleeing to London as a kid with his mother, Claus was Cambridge-educated, worked with J Paul Getty (it was rumoured that Getty paid Claus' astronomical legal costs) and reinvented himself as an opera-loving blue blood/inveterate social climber.

Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown described Claus as "a dark b*****d. I'd love to see him nailed". She put the dark b*****d in a leather jacket on the cover of her magazine, looking as she wrote "positively Satanic".

His Satanic Majesty had long been the subject of rumours through the years: that he was a page boy at Hermann Goering's wedding in Berlin in 1935 with Hitler as best man; that he was best friends with Lord Lucan; that he paid a young hustler named David Marriott to say he delivered to Alexander von Auersperg packages containing hypodermic needles, bags of white powder, syringes, vials of Demerol, for his mother, Mrs Von Bulow; that he was involved in the suspicious demise in August, 1982, of Paul E Molitor Jr - who had been living as a guest of Claus on the estate of Clarenden Court, and who allegedly committed suicide off the Newport bridge (reports claimed that his feet were bound and he was pushed to his death.) There were other slightly mad rumours that Claus killed his own mother and kept her body on ice; and that he was a necrophile.

Claus' former mistress, Andrea Reynolds, wrote in 2008 that the latter charge had its genesis amid the upper echelons of European society at a party in the grill of the Palace Hotel.

"He was close to Gianni Agnelli, the head of Fiat cars, as well as the Roman prince Dado Ruspoli. These three men were impenitent playboys, but Claus seemed to be the most successful of the trio. Hence, Gianni and Dado decided to play a rather morbid joke on their Danish friend.

"At the party, they told anyone who would listen that Claus was a secret necrophiliac. I had a wicked sense of humour, and as soon as my guests were seated, I asked Claus to explain what necrophilia was all about. He burst out laughing and amused everyone."

When Claus' mistress, the triple-divorced socialite Alexandra Isles dumped him after testifying against him at the first trial, the aforementioned Reynolds ended up romantically involved with Claus, most publicly at his second trial.

Legend has it that in the Upper East Side dining rooms of New York, Reynolds wore Sunny's clothes and had them altered by a seamstress at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Madison Avenue.

When the children Alexander von Auersperg and his sister Annie-Laurie von Auersperg Kneissl implored Alexandra Isles to testify at the second trial - after Isles had initially refused because she had become known internationally after her testimony at the first trial as Claus' motivation, after money, for his attempted murder of his wife - she had a lot to say on the stand.

She testified that Claus, after the first coma in 1979, had telephoned her at her mother's house in Ireland to say he lay on the bed next to Sunny for hours waiting for her to die, but that at the last minute he had not been able to go through with it and had called the doctor.

When Thomas Puccio asked her to perhaps explain how she could have continued adulterous relations with a man she thought was trying to murder his wife, she shouted: "Have you ever been in love?"

When Sunny's maid Maria Schrallhammer testified against him in both trials, Claus' pal the Dowager Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava was quoted with a line Wilde would have been proud of: " I know how difficult it is to get a good maid, but this is ridiculous! "

The notorious trials divided the upper echelons of Manhattan's beau monde. In a New York magazine profile, various people close to him were quoted. "Claus is shocked and incredulous that his stepchildren, whom he claims he thought of as his own and helped raise, have turned against him and will be the star prosecution witnesses at his trial.

"His friends speculate that someone set up von Bulow, that his stepchildren, resentful of the provisions for Claus in Sunny's will and hard-pressed on their current income (reportedly $40,000 a year) are pursuing a vendetta."

"Von Bulow is 'far too intelligent to have done such a stupid crime'," said a friend.

"We would see Claus at Mortimer's," the publicist Paul Wilmot told Town and Country. "People used to point at him - he was a tourist attraction!"

Even after Claus' extraordinarily expensive legal team managed to get him acquitted - casting doubt by destroying Sunny's reputation by alleging she had a drink and pills problem that might have resulted in accidental or otherwise suicide - he was still guilty in the eyes of the world. And high society Manhattan, where for a time he still managed to flutter as a social butterfly.

"Claus is a great catalyst," Reinaldo Herrera remarked at the time. "People instantly loathe him or like him." At a well-connected Park Avenue soiree, a guest noted: "He might look like the devil, but he's such a cosy old thing, and so amusing to sit next to at dinner. Have you seen him do his imitation of Queen Victoria?"

Andy Warhol befriended Claus, recalling in his diaries how, in 1987, Claus had once told him: "Thank you for being nice to me before I was a star."

Whether Claus was good at murder or not, he certainly was a bad actor. During the second trial, when he, the jury, the judge and both teams of lawyers were brought to the scene of the attempted murder at Clarendon Court, Claus was reported to have broken down and cried, "wiping away his tears with a silk handkerchief" - an act which was caught by television cameras.

"It was the dogs," Claus answered, referring to his and Sunny's three yellow Labradors.

"I remembered the dogs as young and lean, and they had become old and fat. But they remembered me, and they jumped up on me and greeted me, and I felt like Ulysses returning."

After his acquittal, Claus never returned to Clarendon Court. He decamped to London, where he maintained a high profile in the upper register of London. (In 2001, he was voted 46th "most invited" party guest in London by Tatler magazine.)

It did not end there. In 1987, Alexander von Auersperg and his sister Annie-Laurie von Auersperg Kneissl filed a $56m civil suit against their hateful stepfather. It was settled on the condition he divorce Sunny, renounce all claims to her fortune (including a $120,000 annual trust Sunny set up for him) and never publicly discuss the case.

With this agreement, Claus' daughter Cosima - who had been disinherited for supporting her father - was restored as a one-third recipient of the $100m estate left by Sunny's mother.

In exile in England, Claus lived in a smart flat in Knightsbridge, hosting regular dinner parties. He wrote opera reviews for the Catholic Herald and went to mass every Sunday.

Claus needed the faith he turned to late in life. A prisoner of his own notoriety, he was on occasion hissed at on the street in his adopted home of London, where in the 1960s he met a beautiful young American woman. (He told People magazine in 1982: "In London, I met and fell in love with Sunny.")

"This was a tragedy and it satisfied all of Aristotle's definitions of tragedy," Claus said in a forum at Harvard Law School in 1985. "Everyone is wounded - some fatally."

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